The biggest news in comics at BEA was the distribution shuffle of the last few months. Some major comics publishers have switched their book-trade distributors, as they realize that the future of their business depends on marketing their products as books—especially trade paperback collections—more than as "specialty items." And the biggest change is Marvel Comics' switch of distributors to the trade book market from LPC to Diamond, its longtime distributor to comics specialty stores.
A little explanation of why this is a significant move: the comics trade (or direct market, as comics specialty stores are called) buys almost all its product from Diamond, at a deep discount but on a nonreturnable basis. Marvel is one of the biggest comics publishers in the U.S. and is Diamond's sales star in the direct market, but Diamond doesn't have much experience with returnable sales. (The small Diamond booth at BEA was way over in the children's books section, and emphasized media tie-ins; it didn't particularly highlight Marvel's newly ramped-up trade paperback line). Still, Matt Ragone, Marvel's vice-president of retail sales, noted that the company has seen 100% growth in bookstore chain sales over the first five months of 2001, and that the forthcoming Spider-Man and X-Men movies can't hurt. He was also excited about consolidating Marvel's inventory for its two major avenues of distribution. To complicate things further, Marvel has had severe financial problems lately; if the company were to fail, the floundering comics specialty store network would expire, and (most likely) Diamond along with it. And Marvel's chief competitor, DC Comics, has the option to acquire Diamond beginning in 2003 (though Marvel president Bill Jemas told the pop culture retail news Web site ICv2.com that "DC is not going to acquire Diamond"). In other words, Marvel can't afford not to give its business to Diamond.
Conversely, indie publisher Fantagraphics' new agreement with W.W. Norton for bookstore distribution seems like a sure thing; at BEA both looked like giddy honeymooners. (Over the convention weekend, Fantagraphics won a Firecracker Award for Outstanding Independent Press, as well.) Norton is essentially treating Fantagraphics (publisher of Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes) as a high-grade literary fiction imprint, and has come up with an elegant fall line, including a comprehensive art book on 1950s comics legend Bernard Krigstein and a single-volume edition of comics artist/journalist Joe Sacco's Palestine, an account of life under Israeli occupation.
LPC prominently displayed its newly affiliated graphic-novel publishers, including Dark Horse (Star Wars, Akira) and Todd McFarlane Productions (the branch of Image Comics responsible for the bestselling Spawn series). As of the beginning of BEA, LPC had also signed up the eight-year-old Alternative Comics imprint, which publishes James Kochalka and Jen Sorensen's work. LPC clients were present in force, signing and glad-handing, including writer-of-the-moment Brian Michael Bendis (Powers, Jinx, Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man, etc.), Top Shelf publisher Chris Staros and A Distant Soil's tireless creator, Colleen Doran. There was a distinct buzz about the new collection of Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze, his series about the Trojan War, from Image, and Alex Robinson's Box Office Poison, from Top Shelf.
Some publishers are staying put, of course. DC Comics—distributed by Time Warner, its parent company—had a large, well-trafficked booth with displays of some of its major projects: Neil Gaiman's evergreen, ever-selling Sandman series (sure to reap the benefits of Gaiman's new prose novel, American Gods), the Will Eisner Library (including The Spirit Archives) and MAD (whose "Spy vs. Spy" will soon be collected in book form and is featured on the cover of Watson-Guptill's fall catalogue). DC also displayed the first image from Frank Miller's forthcoming Dark Knight sequel, sure to sell extremely well, and a teaser for a new imprint devoted to veteran artist Joe Kubert.
Meanwhile, WaRP Graphics' Wendy and Richard Pini, who've been publishing their Elfquest fantasy series since 1978, reported that they're very happy with their distributor, Midpoint Trade Books: "They get us into very high-volume retail outlets." They're planning trade paperbacks of new material (their first in several years), and gearing up for the Elfquest animated film that's due in 2003.
Curiously, there wasn't much foreign comics material on display for licensing: a handful of Dargaud books from France, but little else. There were some notable translated projects, though: Terry Nantier of NBM (part of the PMA booth) was very pleased with the response to the first volume of Stéphane Heuet's comics adaptation of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (see accompanying story). Alvin Lu of Viz displayed Japanese manga in translation, notably Eagle, a political thriller set during a U.S. presidential campaign, and mentioned that he's developing more "mature readers" titles. The most significant change for the long term, though, was in comics publishers' attitude. LPC's Robert Boyd noted that he and his associates were paying particularly close attention to dealing with libraries, since that's where his next generation of readers will find out about graphic novels. And the strong presence of comics publishers at BEA was itself a sign that they're trying to figure out how to give the book business what it wants.